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Behind Michigan's abundant agricultural economy are farmworkers facing poor living conditions

Behind Michigan's abundant agricultural economy are farmworkers facing poor living conditions
Credit: University of Michigan

For many seasonal and migrant farmworkers who plant, harvest and process produce for stores, stands, farmers markets and festivals across Michigan, living conditions can be unsafe and unhealthy, University of Michigan researchers say.

In interviews conducted as part of the Michigan Farmworker Project, workers described crowded housing, being provided dirty mattresses, sewage and other odors from bathrooms. They detailed common areas such as living rooms often doubling as bedrooms and a lack of air conditioning.

Additionally, some said they experienced , fears of polluted drinking water, high rents, low wages and a general lack of safe, affordable and quality housing—not unlike the situation many U.S. residents are facing.

The five-year-old community-engaged research project led by Lisbeth Iglesias-Rios and Alexis Handal of the U-M School of Public Health has examined a variety of topics related to treatment by farm owners and supervisors over time.

The latest study, published in the Journal of Agromedicine, assessed housing, labor conditions and general health, using phone interviews with 63 seasonal, migrant and H-2A farmworkers, who, the researchers say, are relied upon to bring produce to market each year. The findings are especially important given the miniscule pool of U.S. workers seeking farming jobs, the researchers say.

"This is about basic human rights, and it's also about treating these workers as the valuable contributors to the state's $104.7 billion that they are. They are not afforded the same protections as other workers with federal and state and safety rules, and the treatment reported by some is dehumanizing and unhealthy," Iglesias-Rios said.

Housing conditions are especially relevant as local, state and federal officials continue to monitor the spread of avian flu, which was detected in another Michigan dairy herd this week. It has also infected two farm workers in Michigan and one in Texas.

The workers live in a mix of employer-provided agricultural housing or in rental properties in the farming communities where they work. About 19,000 migrant, H-2A and seasonal farmworkers, either live in Michigan or travel from other states or countries to provide the labor for Michigan farming operations each season.

"Our desire as community-engaged researchers and the desire of the farmworkers and their advocates is to see policy changes that prevent the precarious working and living situations that come with being a seasonal, H-2A or migrant farmworker in the state," Iglesias-Rios said.

The study and the overall project were conducted in partnership with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and Farmworker Legal Services. The latest published paper, along with prior published studies, is available on the Michigan Farmworker Project website, and includes comments from farmworker interviews:

One worker said, "I would like for workers to have a more humane and equal treatment. Agriculture is a very important and dignified job but they do not value our work. I wish there was more conscious and better treatment for workers. We suffer a lot. I would like a forum to talk with the growers so they can treat the workers better."

From another farmworker: "I would like less people in the apartments because they have two rooms and one bed and then they put eight people. That is a lot of people for the space."

Many farmworkers reported living conditions that were satisfactory. The research, however, focuses on mistreatment and the precarious work and living conditions reported by the workers, including:

  • A majority of workers, 81%, reported one or more environmental hazards in the residence, including quality of drinking water.
  • Experiences of objectification and dehumanization and and a lack of privacy and conditions conducive to comfort, sleep and hygiene.
  • Nearly half of farmworkers, 48%, rated their health as fair or poor during the year prior to the interview; more than a third reported three or more chronic conditions and 39% reported lack of health insurance.
  • About 38% reported living in poverty.
  • Living rooms doubling as bedrooms with mattresses on the floors. Most workers interviewed, more than 60%, reported having mattresses that were somewhat clean or not clean at all.

The study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic period as the virus sickened and killed a disproportionate number of Latinos, including farmworkers. In late 2020, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights commissioned the housing study to describe work characteristics and housing access, affordability and quality for farmworkers living in and outside of agricultural work sites during the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan.

More information: Lisbeth Iglesias-Rios et al, Precarious Work and Housing for Michigan Farmworkers During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond, Journal of Agromedicine (2024). DOI: 10.1080/1059924X.2024.2341803

Citation: Behind Michigan's abundant agricultural economy are farmworkers facing poor living conditions (2024, July 10) retrieved 20 July 2024 from
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